EXPLORING ESTHER

Someone recently asked me what I love the most about serving in vocational ministry. Like every profession there are aspects of ministry that I find difficult and frustrating at times. But I can honestly say that I love all aspects of ministry and, thankfully, the frustrating parts are rather insignificant. But if I am “forced” to pick one aspect of ministry that I enjoy the most, I would reply that the public teaching and preaching of Scripture are particular enjoyable to me. I love to study Scripture, and I always enjoy the opportunity to share what I’m learning about God’s word.  

In the early days of the church the apostles were confronted with the rapidly increasing demands of ministry. It was clear that the apostles needed assistance if the church was going to effectively minister to the growing needs of others. This predicament led the church to calling seven men from within the congregation to serve as the first deacons. Once these men were chosen, the apostles would “devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).

As the church spread and matured, shepherds were chosen to preach the word to their local congregations. Since it is the word of God that changes lives, pastors were given the primary responsibility of preaching and teaching the Holy Scriptures. As the Apostle Paul asked in Romans 10:14, “How are they to hear without someone preaching?” Preaching has always been a vital part of the local church, and God has called qualified men to proclaim His word to His people.

 In my opinion, one of the greatest responsibilities pastors have is the selection of what portion of Scripture the congregation needs to study. Because I generally preach expositionally through books of the Bible during our Sunday morning services, I only have to select which book or portion of Scripture to preach a few times a year. Once the book is prayerfully chosen, I get to dig into the text and start the rewarding process of learning all I can about that particular portion of the Bible.

 Once I prayerfully select which book to exposit, my week-to-week preaching schedule depends on what pericope comes next in the text. I personally find the selection of what book to study together a bit daunting but exciting all at the same time. I am convinced that the systematic exposition of Scripture is the best and most effective way to consistently proclaim God’s word. The more I study and learn week-by-week, the more exciting the process becomes. Once I have collected a mountain of information about a passage, I have the privilege of taking what I have gathered and condense the material into a sermon.

I had been praying about preaching through the book of Esther for about a year. I considered a couple of other books over the last few months, but I kept coming back to Esther. Most people know the highlights of Esther, but the details of the book are often unknown. The book of Esther isn’t just a literary masterpiece; it’s also a spiritual masterpiece filled with powerful insights into how God directs His creation. The book of Esther was inspired by God and was given to us for our spiritual benefit. Esther records the story of an orphaned Jewish woman who plays a significant role in God’s divine protection of His people from an evil and murderous plot against them. This short book is a story of courage, faithfulness, and irony.

This world isn’t just an endless stream of random coincidences or disjointed events. God is sovereign over all things, including the seemingly mundane events of daily life. Every day may not be filled with miracles, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t working. God is personally involved even in the seemingly insignificant details of life. Every day isn’t filled with Hallmark moments, but that doesn’t mean God doesn’t care. God is personally involved in your life even when you don’t feel His presence. Some days are filled with hardship and disappointment, but that doesn’t mean God is unfaithful. God is personally involved in your life, even on the days life is hard and it leaves you sad or discouraged.

Esther is the only book in the Bible that doesn’t have an explicit reference to God. In fact, the author of Esther doesn’t refer to God by name or title even once. There is no mention of the Mosaic Law or the sacrificial system. There isn’t even a single prayer mentioned in the book. The only possible reference to any spiritual practice is found in chapter four when Queen Esther calls for a fast.

The book of Esther is never quoted in the New Testament (but neither is Ezra or Nehemiah). Because of the questions surrounding the book, for the first seven hundred years of church history, not one commentary was produced on the book of Esther. Even the great reformer Martin Luther questioned Esther’s canonical status because, according to Luther, the book contained too much “pagan naughtiness.”

Some Jewish rabbis were so troubled by the omission of God’s name and religious practices such as prayer and sacrifice that they composed an additional one-hundred seven verses, which included prayers by both Esther and Mordecai. These additional verses were included into the pages of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and comprised six additional chapters. These additional man-composed verses mention God more than fifty times, and regularly emphasize God’s gracious providence in the turbulent events of the book.

The Hebrew text of Esther never included these additional chapters. In the fourth century, while Jerome was translating from the Hebrew manuscripts of Esther into what became the Latin Vulgate, he recognized that these supplementary verses were not included the Hebrew text. Because of Jerome’s emphasis and respect for the Hebrew text, he moved the additional verses from being interspersed throughout the book and included them in an appendage at the end of the book. These verses were late additions to the story of Esther and were not inspired by God. The addition of these verses was an attempt by men to make the book of Esther a little more palatable.

None of these additional verses have made their way into the major English translations of our time. They are, however, included in The New American Bible used by the Roman Catholic Church. It’s important to remember that these verses are not included in the Hebrew manuscripts because they were not inspired by God; therefore, while they may make interesting reading material, these passages are not part of God’s inspired Scriptures for the church today.  

As I walk us through the book of Esther I will make many minor applications along the way, but I encourage you to keep the two major theological themes of the book in the forefront of your mind:

1.      God’s providential care: God fulfills His divine promises, sometimes through miraculous events and other times by working in the seemingly ordinary, “coincidental” events of life. Esther illustrates the fact that even the actions of unbelieving pagans and spiritually immature believers can be used to fulfill God’s redemptive plan.

2.      God’s faithfulness to His people: this powerful truth is highlighted by the fact that God’s people were living in exile during the time of Esther because of their sin against God and their disloyalty to His covenant. While God’s people were unfaithful to Him, the God of heaven was (and is) still faithful to His covenant and to His people. Despite Israel’s brazen sin, God would not forsake His people.

These two theological themes can be summarized in one statement: God is sovereignly behind it all! Despite the disloyalty of the Jewish people, God would protect and preserve His people by providentially working through their circumstances while in exile. Just as God was sovereignly behind the events of Esther’s life, He is also behind the details of your life. God is providentially caring for you, and He will be forever faithful to you.

Jay Knolls